Election of 1840: The Rhetoric

William Henry Harrison. By: Albert Gallatin Hoit.

The Election of 1840 juxtaposed the Whig Party’s policies against the Democratic Party’s more fluid policies. The Whigs “possessed a more coherent program: a national bank, a protective tariff, government subsidies to transportation projects, the public lands treated as a source of revenue, and tax-supported public schools.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 583-84. The Democrats did not have such rigid policies, relying instead on the “emotional bond” they they had with their followers, rather than policy initiatives. Id. at 584 citing Matthew Crenson, The Federal Machine: Beginnings of Bureaucracy in Jacksonian America (Baltimore, 1975), 29.

Both parties used republicanism to state their cases to the voters. While the Whigs used it to “denounce executive usurpation,” the Democrats used it to “denounce the money power.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 582 citing Major Wilson, “Republican Consensus and Party Debate in the Bank War,” JER 15 (1995): 619-48. Democrats and Whigs alike tried to relate to the Jeffersonian Republicanism. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 582.

The Democrats were principally comfortable with how the nation was, particularly the dominance of agriculture. Id. Democrats disapproved of the government supported the privileged elites in society. Id. Democrats also supported the heterogeneous nature of American society, where communities could decide whether they wished to have slavery, whether they wanted to fund education and infrastructure improvements, and how to deal with Native Americans, criminals, and others. Id. at 582-83. Jacksonian Democrats wanted a government just strong enough to protect slaveowners from interference. Id. at 583.

The Whigs, on the other hand, had different policies. They wanted “commerce and industry” to be valued the same as agriculture, diversifying the American economy. Id. They also believed that American society should be more homogeneous, to prevent problems such as “lawlessness, violence, and demagoguery.” Id. Whereas the Democrats had a negative conception of liberty, seeing liberty as “freeing the common (white) man from the oppressive burdens of an aristocracy,” the Whigs had a positive conception of liberty, treasuring “it as a means to the formation of individual character and a good society.” Id.

Some Democrats, like incumbent President Martin Van Buren, viewed political parties as a good thing. Id. at 584. Whigs did not agree with this assessment. Id. The Illinois Whig, Abraham Lincoln stated: “They set us the example of organization, and we, in self-defence, are driven to it.” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, I, 205. The Whigs saw their party as a means to set policy, not an end in itself. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 584.

Another fundamental difference between the parties is that the Democrats fully embraced white supremacy. Id. Former President John Quincy Adams weighed in on the implications of the Democrats’ policies:

“If the internal improvement of the country should be left to the legislative management of the national government, and the proceeds of the sales of public lands should be applied as a perpetual and self-accumulating fund for that purpose, the blessings unceasingly showered upon the people by this process would so grapple the affections of the people to the national authority that it would, in process of time, overshadow that of state governments, and settle the preponderancy of power in the free states; and then the undying worm of conscience twinges with terror for the fate of the peculiar institution. Slavery stands aghast at the prospective promotion of the general welfare.” John Quincy Adams, “Address to his Constituents,” Sept. 17, 1842, in Selected Writings of John and John Quincy Adams, ed. Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York, 1946), 392.

The Democrats were putting themselves in a corner, from a political perspective. By taking the motto “all men are created equal,” and embracing it, the Democrats were calling “into question the very humanity of nonwhites in order to keep them unequal.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 586.

The rhetoric that the Election of 1840 brought out of both the Democrats and the Whigs was creating significant tension between the parties. The Democrats had met their match with the emergence of the Whig Party. As much as the Democrats had dominated the politics of the 1820s and 1830s, the Election of 1840 had freshly raised issues about the role of government in Americans’ lives.

These debates would prepare Americans to dive further into issues like slavery, states’ rights, sectionalism, and the role of the national government, all of which would culminate in the Civil War.

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